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Welcome to Icelandia, an ice-coated version of Alaska

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

Alaska's most populated region has become a regular, little Icelandia in the bizarre winter of 2012-13. Homeowners in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough report "glaciers'' threatening their homes. Anchorage kids have been spotted skating on ice-covered streets. Snowmachine trails that connect the remote parts of the Yentna River valley to the state road system are laced with frozen ruts. And portions of the Kenai Peninsula are now encased in ice, thanks to rain there earlier this week.

This from Chugach National Forest trails technician Irene Lindquist on Thursday: "Access roads to Resurrection North, Bean Creek, Snug Harbor Road, Mile 9 winter parking, Lower Russian, Lost Lake, and Exit Glacier are slippery.

"Lost Lake Trail is not recommended for travel due to icy conditions. Access to Lost Lake should be via Primrose Trail or Snug Harbor Rd., (which) beginning around Mile 5 Snug Harbor Road is icy and glaciated. Rigs pulling larger trailers may run into difficulties. Snowmachines have been successful climbing the hills to Lost Lake.

"Russian River Campground access road is icy and grippers should be worn. Lower Russian Lakes Trail at the moment is a better hike than ski."

Not normal glaciers

Several factors are in play to create the glaciation, which is being seen in many places, including the Anchorage Hillside. But these are not the factors that create traditional glaciers, which grow when snow piles up so deep the pressure of it eventually compresses snow at the bottom into ice.

Glaciation occurring in Alaska's Icelandia is the result of interactions between surface and groundwater. The region witnessed a very wet fall followed by an unusually cold November. Wherever groundwater percolated to the surface of the landscape, it froze. The pressure of water still in the ground, however, pushed more water up and over the ice, forming what is commonly called "overflow."

Water flowing over ice freezes. As wave after wave of water flows over the ice, its thickness grows. Wasilla-area residents report ice now a foot deep on Settler's Bay Drive. City and state maintenance crews in the Anchorage area have been kept busy using heated hoses to maintain drainage ditches along Hillside roads to keep similar problems from developing there.

Normally, an insulating blanket of snow accumulates over the ground to check this phenomenon and keep the landscape from being overwhelmed by ice. There has not been much snow in the region this winter, and too often precipitation has arrived in the form of rain.

Rain only adds to the problem.

Rain usually freezes when it lands on ice, and the glaciers of ice grow. Some rain flows over the ice until it finds a depression to fill, and those usually freeze, creating more ice.

Snow is on the way 

The good news, if there is good news, is that the National Weather Service is forecasting the return of winter. Anchorage could see up to 3 inches of snow by the weekend. The Matanuska Valley might get as much as 6. The Kenai is forecast to get significantly less, but at least the rain is expected to change to snow. 

If the snow bonds to the ice, it will be a good thing, making life easier for winter travelers whether in motor vehicles or on snowmachines. If it doesn't bond, well, expect things to get even slipperier.

Still, there are some positives. If the Wasilla area gets the substantial snow in the forecast for Thursday and Friday, snowmachine access to homesteads, recreational cabins, lodges and the community of Skwentna to the north could improve substantially. Jean Gabrysak at the Yentna Lodge reports "trails have been moved and remarked to avoid the bad overflow and ruts left from the slushy trail.  Any overflow left on the trail has been reported to be no more that two inches deep."

Cover all that with 8 inches of new snow and what you get is a white, snowmachine highway heading north. If, of course, the snow comes.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com